Descrimination at Work

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I have to applaud Adam Grant and Sheryl Sandberg for increasing awareness and adding color to the array of issues that our society (and I would emphasize society, rather than just women) faces in better incorporating women into the workforce and reducing the gender gap.

In this recent article (first of of a series) in the New York Times, titled: “When Talking About Bias Backfires”, they write about the fact that raising awareness about gender bias may actually deepen stereotypes about women, rather than reducing them.  

When we communicate that a vast majority of people hold some biases, we need to make sure that we’re not legitimating prejudice. By reinforcing the idea that people want to conquer their biases and that there are benefits to doing so, we send a more effective message: Most people don’t want to discriminate, and you shouldn’t either.

I like the analysis but I think it reaches the wrong conclusion. A call for action attached to the awareness is not enough. It’s all about the good old “WIIFM” (“What’s in it for me? “). In my numerous conversations about the gender gap I found out the following.

1. The terminology is problematic. Gender Bias, Gender gap, Gender equality, Gender Equity, are all stuck up academic terms that alienate the average person from the topic. Talking with these terms creates an immediate dissociation in the listener. The conversation becomes formal, academic, bureaucratic, compliance related instead of a meaningful discussion about an important issue for society. This is why increasing awareness about the terms may be ineffective. I have seen this numerous times in the corporate world, when a new initiative is launched with bogus names such as “Program for Gender Equity”, “Say No to Sexual Harassment”, “Corporate Ecosystem Services Value Chain Analysis”. Employees simply hate it because they know that their company is just covering its behind on their expense. When you have to train the trainers (ex: HR) to understand what the name of the program means, most likely you have to come up with a better name for it.

2. Awareness is a nice thing indeed. But most of the talented young women I met, were already somewhat aware of the gender bias. This is why they were consciously trying to distance themselves from this “women issue”. They have spent their careers fighting for their place and proving that they can do it, “just like any man”. They didn’t want their gender to be a factor. They wanted their achievements to be the issue of discussion. They would try so hard to not make it their problem that I would just have to make it their problem. Two of the common questions I would ask in response to rejection of the topic were:

a) Why  should you have to behave like “one of the guys” in order to be accepted, given that you’re not a guy,  you are a woman?

b) it’s so great that you have been given equal access to opportunities, but do you know other women in this company that were discriminated or mistreated because of their gender?  Could things be done differently?

After those, the real conversation would start (and sometimes would last for hours).

3. There is too much focus on the problem instead of on proven solutions. I have heard several women talk about how the system is all messed up and there is nothing to do about it. Sexism in banking and VC doesn’t seem to go away, family-friendly labor practices are a rainbow in the horizon, and women don’t really want to be CEOs anyways. Maternity seems to be the top-of-mind obstacle (perhaps because the bellies are so visible). However, I really have  hard time believing that this is the real issue. Having met several supermoms that have several kids and run their own companies as well as households, I know it can be done with the right amount of ambition (and of course financial success). We need much more emphasize on the success stories of individuals and companies challenging the status quo so that people would have more reasons to believe and the debate could be richer.

All in all, I am very optimistic and am hopeful that in the not so far future, the terms “gender bias” or “gender equity” would become obsolete because this will be a non-issue.

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“She is good at her job, but she is just a little too aggressive”

Still trying to change  the world one step at a time.

Sheryl Sandberg’s recent initiative “Ban Bossy” made me think about how I had been often myself perceived as too aggressive, while thinking to myself that I was just trying to do my job. I remembered hearing various comments from my most respected female colleagues here along the lines of “I keep getting negative reviews, as I am too critical”, while marveling at how others that I found completely incompetent rewarded for “good social skills.” And not to forget the worst category of all – the really intelligent and competent ladies I found way too humble and undervalued by their bosses and the company as a whole. Those are the ones that  work long hours, do not get promoted and say that they don’t seek promotion but are happy to be doing a good job.

Since the failure of my first women empowerment initiative, the positive outcome was the the jargon “poderosa” (powerful) stuck around with the parties involved, in conversations, in e-mails, in internal jokes. It helped me keep the conversation alive but left me with the need to keep provoking change.

Yesterday, I decided to share this video, that talks about the stereotypes women face that keep them from leadership roles with some of my powerful lady colleagues – asking them: “Do you want to be bossy or do you want to become the boss?”.

It was really interesting to get back the emotional responses such as:

“My therapist told me to be more girly “Mulherziha”, so I dropped her, continuing to be  ‘bossy’!! “,

“Incredible! I’m feeling more relieved after watching this.”

I was rather surprised with these responses, and am now thinking of what to do next to build on this.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

This is what Sheryl Sandberg’s newest Lean In campaign is asking women to answer.
I couldn’t really relate myself. I guess the only thing I’m really afraid of is cancer (and heights).